Lifesaving Poems: Margaret Avison’s ‘Twilight’




Three minutes ago it was almost dark.
Now all the darkness is in the
leaves (there are no more
low garage roofs, etc.).

But the sky itself has become mauve.
Yet it is raining.
The trees rustle and tap with rain.
… Yet the sun is gone.
It would even be gone from the mountaintops
if there were mountains.

In cities this mauve sky
may be of man.

The taps listen, in the unlighted bathroom.

Perfume of light.

It is gone. It is all over:
until the hills close to behind
the ultimate straggler, it will
be so again.

The insect of thought retracts its claws;
it wilts.

Margaret Avison, from The Essential Margaret Avison (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2010)

I came across this poem one evening noodling on the internet when I had nothing better to do.

I was having one of my periodic bouts of Poetry Exhaustion. I was convinced I would never again come across a poem that would move me and that my entire library of poetry was worthless. I may even have persuaded myself that my twenty-five-year-plus dedication to poetry had been worthless and that a career change was in order, banking say.

Like so many of my Lifesaving Poems I heard the poem before I read it, on this occasion via a YouTube clip of August Kleinzahler reading it at a prize-giving ceremony. (Following the link above takes you to the full text of his speech. It is well worth a read and a listen.)

As I say, I was in the doldrums at the time, with no hope or expectation of anything resembling a poem ever coming into my life again.

Then bam, the tired, weary, slightly let’s-get-to-the-bar-already voice of August Kleinzahler reading a poem about a Toronto Twilight by a woman I had never heard of, began to still my breathing. Then stop it altogether.

I am sure there was something about the combination of the tiredness I was feeling and the exhaustion in Kleinzahler’s delivery that made me take notice. That, and the deceptively simple opening line: ‘Three minutes ago it was almost dark.’ Something about those short, declarative sentences, the way they innocently purport to paint a picture whilst carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders: ‘But the sky itself has become mauve./ Yet it is raining./ The trees rustle and tap with rain.’

Something, also, in the way the poem carries commentary about the description of the scene it is describing: ‘(there are no more/ low garage roofs, etc.).’; ‘if there were mountains./ /In cities this mauve sky/ may be of man.’

Something of the way the poem turns hungrily towards metaphor, those taps listening in the bathroom, that ‘Perfume of light.’

I felt the poem had no right to be playing with my expectations like this. How dare it offer commentary; how dare it mix outrageous, gorgeous metaphor with plain speech like that. How dare it not care what the reader thinks of it risking everything to tell us ‘it is all over’.

Nevertheless, I succumbed to its ‘insect of thought’. The poem still has it claws in me.


  1. I liked this too, but wasn’t sure why. What you said helped me understand what she is doing. I don’t think I’ve seen ‘etc.’ used in a poem before – it seems odd, but maybe it is an indication of weariness?


    1. Hello Meg
      I like the etc. -Maybe there is an anthology idea in there?
      Yes, it is weary, offhand and dicing with slapdashiness (?).
      But then the whole poem is flirting with these things.
      As ever with grateful thanks


  2. Meg, the etc. is perfect; it embodies the ellipsis of twilight, details obscured to dot dot dot.

    Thanks for this Anthony. I like the poem, though not quite as much as Kleinzahelr likes it, or Khalid for that matter. Perhaps it needs to work on me for awhile. Great speech by your man. I think I’ve heard of his taxi driver before. May be a regular alter ego he brings out.


    1. Hi Mark, great to hear from you.
      The speech does help, you are right.
      I’m now on the look out for Khalid in other places.
      You are right about the etc -the weariness and the offhandedness of it.
      As ever with thanks


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